Joseph Sabino Mistick: A paper trail could help secure elections — and democracy
When early 19th-century English Luddites started smashing textile machinery, they also landed on a strategy that can protect our elections from hackers. The Luddites said they were protesting the use of machines that boosted efficiency at the cost of quality and reliability.
After the 2000 Bush versus Gore presidential race, it became clear that voting and counting votes was haphazard at best. The critical Florida recount was so flawed that the Supreme Court got to pick the president, pushing voters aside.
After that national passion play, the need to modernize our elections was obvious, and Congress provided funding to states and counties to upgrade their voting methods and equipment, with the Help America Vote Act of 2002. In the rush to buy something before the funds dried up, many jurisdictions bought electronic voting machines with no paper record that could verify individual votes.
American voters now have the same problem that the Luddites had — a machinery solution that degrades quality and reliability. Every American intelligence agency agrees that the Russians attempted to hack our last presidential election and that they are hard at work to hack the upcoming midterms.
Sometimes you have to go backward before you can go forward. California Sen. Kamala Harris recently called for a return to paper ballots, “Because Russia cannot hack a piece of paper like they can a computer system connected to the internet.”
Notoriously, paper ballots have had their own problems, thanks to the old political bosses. Someone once said that if you were buried in Braddock, one of the party machine towns of the past, you would achieve immortality, because your committeeman would make sure you voted forever.
But that was mere petty theft compared to the grand larceny committed by hacker nations that steal votes wholesale. And a full switch to paper may not be necessary, as long as the mechanical voting machine creates a paper account of every vote cast.
Not everyone gets it. Last month, the Republican caucus of the House of Representatives killed a bill that would have extended funding for election security. One supporter of the bill called that move “nothing less than unilateral disarmament” against Russia.
And Democrats chanted “USA! USA!” on the House floor, after Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer said, “Surely we can rise above pandering to party and Putin to act on behalf of our freedom and our security.”
In Pennsylvania, the bipartisan Blue Ribbon Commission on Pennsylvania’s Election Security is co-chaired by a Democrat and a Republican, former U.S. Attorney David Hickton and Grove City College President Paul McNulty.
The cybersecurity of voter rolls, voting machines and the final vote count are on their agenda. Ominously, they are also looking at ways Pennsylvania can bounce back after an election is hacked, but that will be too late for this coming election.
Clearly, the Luddites were onto something, and the sooner we take a hammer to all-electronic voting machines, and replace them with a paper trail, the safer our democracy will be. There is no wiggle room here. Let your elected officials know that you are holding them to account, because America is under attack.
Joseph Sabino Mistick is a Pittsburgh lawyer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.